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Consider Context, Experience and Behavior when Developing Packaging Best Practices

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To what degree does sustainability in packaging influence consumer choice?

As consultants in product and shopper experience, we are often asked about best practices in packaging. Actually, as contrarian as it may seem, we think that the pack itself is the wrong place to start.  

Huge global issues are impacting how food and retail brands are tackling packaging in 2020; none more significant than sustainability. Brands are making big commitments to what we call the “big S” — sustainability goals including accountability in the supply chain for ethically sourced ingredients, reducing carbon footprints and switching to renewable energy sources in their manufacturing. Packaging is a small but vital component of this and there are genuinely epic corporate initiatives to reduce plastic in packaging, or create packaging made from recycled or recyclable materials. 

But no matter how many press releases a corporation issues, in the “moment of truth” at the actual (or virtual) retail shelf, the question is: To what degree can sustainability in packaging really influence consumer choice?  

Reducing plastic, or reliance on virgin rather than recycled materials in packaging, is undoubtedly important for the sustainable health of the planet. While consumers express the desire for sustainable choices, too often we see the “elusive green consumer” not rewarding brands for their sustainability investments with their purchases. Brands struggle to get consumers to understand what sustainability in packaging really means, why it is important and why they even might need to be willing to pay a bit more for it.  

Fundamentally, in order to decipher best practices in packaging, we believe that it is important to think in terms of context, experience and a behavior framework. 

Context can be a function of the kind of retail environment in which the purchase is being made: Is it club or convenience? Or is it brick-and-mortar or click-and-collect through an e-commerce portal? The pack needs to reflect the context in which a consumer sees the product, chooses it and receives it.  

Experience relates not only to the “first moment of truth” of the product purchase, but also to the “second moment of truth” when the product is used, disposed of and hopefully purchased again. Behavior is what brands need to influence in order to make that consumer choice a default and a habit. 

I suppose the best way to illustrate this would be examples of my own experience as a consumer. I have a wife and two kids. Like the people we see in our day-to-day research practice, I don’t think too much about anything in the store other than getting through our shopping chores quickly.  

At the first moment of truth, honestly, I spend little time thinking about the material that packaging is made from, nor even the act of recycling the packaging. For it to influence me, the “sustainability” of a product needs to be easy to understand and make it easy to choose.  

Messaging on the package must do a lot: It needs to deliver the brand promise; the product promise; and any leftover real estate has to quickly and intuitively convey the sustainability promise.  Behavioral science refers to it as “system 1” thinking, where the brain instinctively processes and acts on what we see.  

How do Consumers Perceive Packaging? 

What I do think about cognitively and what annoys me, frankly, is waste in packaging.  

We buy seltzer from a big-box club retailer by the case. It comes in a cardboard tray, holding multiple six packs held together with plastic yokes, and the entire SKU is shrink-wrapped! As a consumer, I’m miffed that the brand and retailer can’t figure out how to eliminate the waste in the secondary packaging.  

To be fair, retailers like TESCO in the U.K. have ditched excess materials in multipacks in private-branded products, while still offering the same multipack pricing. Brands like Kraft Heinz are joining TESCO in the initiative. But most retailers and fast-moving consumer goods manufacturers are playing catch up.  

We buy a brand of biscuits whose homey pack is made from uncoated brown craft cardboard, a good visual cue that the pack was made from recycled material. Open it up and what do you find inside? A sealed plastic bag to ensure freshness and a plastic tray to reduce breakage, both compromising the sustainability promise.

Recently, a brilliantly sustainable single-use bottle I purchased on the go was flimsy, leaking water on my shirt and collapsing when I set it down next to my laptop. In reducing plastic in the pack, the product experience was ruined, and I’m unlikely to purchase that brand again.  

More than the functional aspects of the packaging, there’s a part of the packaging experience that represents the ritual, creating an emotional bond between product and consumer that’s often almost unconscious.

And sustainability presents real unforeseen complications for brands having nothing to do with materials. Consider Capri Sun, which recently announced its commitment to more sustainable packs. 

My kids love Capri Sun, and not because of the all-natural ingredients or the taste. They love the ritual associated with taking the plastic straw attached to the pouch-like pack, piercing the tiny hole and loudly, mischievously slurping out the contents. It makes the pack fun. The ritual is a distinctive brand asset. 

As Capri Sun embraces the complicated environmental imperative of eliminating the plastic straw, above and beyond the structural challenge of redesigning and remanufacturing the pack, they also must create a new ritual to replace it. 

None of this is easy to solve but, ultimately, best practices in packaging will be those reflecting the balance between doing what is right and necessary for sustainability and making the shopper choice easy — in whatever context — by making people feel good about the product and the experience.

Ian Elmer is U.S. managing director of PRS IN VIVO, a BVA Group company specializing in the application of behavioral science to improve product and shopper experience. He can be reached at ian.elmer@prs-invivo.com or follow him on Twitter @Ian_Elmer.